After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1962, Milburn Gibbs moved to Southern California. There, he managed a wholesale bakery serving the fleets of aluminum trucks that sell lunches and coffee-break snacks to workers at job sites. On the side, he wrote a community-news column for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
More than 30 years later, Gibbs returned to the geographic center of his home state, settling in Siler City, the largest town in Chatham County. He planned to retire but ended up plunging full-time into journalism – as a reporter for the local weekly, The Chatham News, and later as editor of a nearby sister paper, The Liberty News.
Siler City should sound familiar to viewers of “The Andy Griffith Show”: It’s where residents of the fictional town of Mayberry said they did their Saturday shopping. The quaint community, where Frances Bavier (who played Aunt Bee) retired, died and is buried, is a far cry from the hustle-bustle of metropolitan Los Angeles. But as the 1990s progressed, Gibbs noticed a burgeoning reminder of the City of Angels: an explosion in the number of Latino residents.
“When I left North Carolina in the 1960s, there were no Hispanics whatsoever,” said Gibbs, 63. “Now you hear people speaking Spanish on the streets and in the grocery stores all the time.”
The demographics shifted dramatically in the past 10 years. In the 1990 census, of Siler City’s 4,800 residents, only 180 – fewer than 4 percent – were Hispanic. By 2000, Hispanics made up more than 2,700 – about 40 percent – of the town’s 7,000 residents.
The influx of Hispanics isn’t unique to Chatham County. The 2000 census found a surge in the Latino population throughout the United States. These residents settled not only in the traditional urban and suburban epicenters of immigration but especially in the nation’s small towns and rural countryside. This striking development brought growth to areas that had been losing population – and cultural diversity to areas that had never known it.
For community newspapers, the arrival of Latinos presents significant opportunities. First of all, it’s news – a chance to tell longtime residents who the newcomers are and how local institutions are responding to the changing demographics. It is also an opportunity to provide important information for immigrants and perhaps eventually win them over as readers.
But the Hispanic population boom presents significant challenges, too. Small-town newspapers are less likely than their big-city counterparts to have Spanish-speaking staff members. They may have to overcome cultural differences and immigrants’ reluctance to draw attention to themselves. And community papers also may face a backlash from established residents who resent the “foreigners.”
As faculty members in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, we decided to explore these opportunities and obstacles. Last summer and fall, we surveyed more than 320 community newspaper editors in Virginia and North Carolina to see how they had covered Latino immigration and what problems they encountered.
We defined community newspapers as general-interest daily and weekly papers with circulations of 50,000 or less. Sixty-eight editors took our survey – a response rate of 21 percent.
Our findings may hold lessons for journalists in other states. The survey produced several suggestions for covering Latino immigrants:
• Work hard to develop contacts, such as business and religious leaders, among Hispanic residents; don’t expect story ideas to arrive over the transom. To cultivate sources among immigrants, reporters need Spanish language skills and cultural sensitivity.
• Remember that the Hispanic community is not monolithic. Many Latino residents have roots in the United States going back centuries; others may be recent arrivals from any number of countries. They represent a range of economic, political and social backgrounds. As one editor said, “Be careful about generalizations and stereotypes.”
• Report on the numerous ways that Latino immigrants have contributed to your area – in terms of culture and the economy, for example. Depicting the newcomers only as a drain on local services plays into the hands of racists.
Siler City has first-hand experience with xenophobic demagogues. David Duke, former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, visited the town to rally against the immigrants, urging white residents to “kick the illegal aliens out, or you’ll lose your community and your heritage.”
Gibbs strives to paint a more complete picture of Latinos. He frequently writes stories about the businesses they have opened, about the work they do in the local poultry-processing plants and about Hispanic students winning awards at school.
Last year, in profiling outstanding members of a local high school’s graduating class, Gibbs included a young man who had been born in Mexico and knew no English when he arrived in North Carolina. “His message was, ‘Every Hispanic is not a gang member or a goof-off or a druggie.’ This student was a role model for all kids.”
LATINO POPULATION SOARS
During the 1990s, the number of Hispanic residents in the United States increased almost 58 percent – from 22.4 million in the 1990 census to 35.3 million in the 2000 census. According to the 2000 census, for the first time, the United States had more Hispanic residents than African Americans, who numbered 34.7 million.
We chose North Carolina and Virginia for our survey in part because they had bigger increases in their Hispanic populations than did the country as a whole.
The number of Hispanic residents in North Carolina jumped from fewer than 77,000 in the 1990 census to 379,000 in the 2000 census. That represented an increase of 400 percent – the largest percentage increase in Hispanics among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 1990, Hispanics represented 1.2 percent of North Carolina’s total population; by 2000, they represented 4.7 percent.
Over the same period, the number of Hispanic residents in Virginia doubled, from 160,000 in the 1990 census to almost 330,000 in the 2000 census. In 1990, Hispanics made up 2.6 percent of Virginia’s total population. By the end of the decade, they made up 4.7 percent.
During the 1990s, the Latino population increased in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties and in 130 of Virginia’s 135 counties and independent cities. In the two states, six counties and more than 60 towns would have had net losses in population had it not been for Hispanic immigration. Siler City, for example, lost almost 400 non-Hispanic residents during the 1990s, but this was more than offset by an increase of more than 2,500 Hispanic residents.
The biggest percentage increases in the Hispanic population occurred in rural counties. In North Carolina’s Cabarrus County, for instance, the Hispanic population increased almost 1,300 percent, from 483 in 1990 to 6,620 in 2000. In remote Galax, Va., the number of Latinos rose almost 1,100 percent, from 65 in 1990 to 757 in 2000.
Those numbers reflect a trend noted in a study issued by the U.S. Census Bureau in May 2001: “While most Hispanics lived in the South or West, some counties in nontraditional Hispanic states such as Georgia and North Carolina had sizable proportions of Hispanic populations.” In parts of North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota and Nebraska, the bureau said, Hispanics represented up to a quarter of the population.
EDITORS SEE STORIES, OBSTACLES
Of the editors who responded to our survey, 85 percent said they had noticed an increase in the local Latino population. Almost all of these respondents said Latino immigration has had an impact on their community.
The editors said schools were affected the most because they often had to institute or expand programs to help Spanish-speaking children learn English as a second language. Respondents also cited new restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that catered to Latinos – and the appearance of Hispanic-oriented products on the shelves of existing stores. Another change, editors said, was the need for interpreters and bilingual teachers, social service workers, medical personnel and police officers.
The survey found that Latinos were important to the local economy, accepting unpleasant and low-paying jobs that otherwise might go unfilled. A Virginia editor said Hispanic immigrants provided “an expanded labor pool, new entrepreneurs and new families seeking to establish themselves and buy homes.”
All of those changes make for illuminating news stories. But they aren’t easy stories to report.
According to our survey, contact between the newspapers and Latinos is fairly limited. Only 2 percent of the respondents said their news staffs had “a lot” of contact with local Hispanics; an additional 20 percent said they had “some” contact. Advertising and circulation staffs had even less contact with Latinos.
The language barrier is a big reason for the lack of contact: The vast majority of responding editors said none of their staff members spoke Spanish.
Beyond the language problem, several respondents said Latinos in the community were “skittish” and did not want to be in the newspaper, perhaps because they may be in the country illegally. The editors said local Hispanics tended to keep to themselves and were “hesitant to join the greater community.” That made it hard to approach residents of Hispanic neighborhoods as news sources, some respondents said.
“As far as news coverage goes, these communities are quiet and very little comes our way about them,” one editor wrote.
Lee Hinnant, the news editor for The News Reporter in Whiteville, N.C., said, “The language barrier is one thing – the authority barrier is another. Some of these folks are very distrustful.” Immigrants may see reporters as government agents, and they may have had bad experiences with corrupt governments in their homelands.
Our survey asked editors how their communities had responded to the Latino residents. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents said their communities had responded in both positive and negative ways; 21 percent said the response had been mostly positive; and 12 percent said it had been mostly negative.
Longtime residents like the Hispanic restaurants and foods in the grocery stores, but some fear that Latinos take jobs that “belong” to locals and strain government services, several respondents said. They also noted lingering bigotry.
“Some people resist change and do not like ‘different’ races moving here,” a North Carolina editor wrote.
Another wrote, “Many people appreciate the opportunity for cultural exchanges, factories and employers appreciate the work ethic, but many community members fear job competition, fear diversion of resources (ESL teachers, etc.), and basically just fear the unknown.”
Despite such attitudes and obstacles to covering Latinos, most of the editors had run stories about the immigrants. Those articles often dealt with schools, Hispanic entrepreneurs, crimes in which Latinos were victims or perpetrators, social services available to immigrants, new churches and “how immigration is changing the face of the county.”
Some editors have gone beyond treating Hispanics as news subjects to targeting them as readers. A few editors said they have published notices, announcements and advertisements in Spanish. Some papers – including The News Reporter – are considering running longer stories or entire pages in Spanish if they can get translation help.
The News Reporter is a twice-weekly serving Columbus County, where the Hispanic population rose from 240 in 1990 to 1,270 in 2000. “In less than a decade, they have become a permanent part of the community,” Hinnant said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten our arms around the fundamental change that’s taken place yet.”
Small papers have had mixed success publishing in Spanish. In May 2000, the Times Daily in Florence, Ala., started publishing a weekly section called De Nosotros – “About Us.” The section has since folded.
Gibbs said newspapers should not give up reaching out to Hispanics.
It may be impossible to sell many papers to first-generation immigrants. “Many of them can’t read Spanish, much less English,” Gibbs said. But their children are a different story: “We are seeing second-generation assimilation.”
Editors must work hard to include Hispanics in community coverage – because they are a permanent part of the community, Gibbs said.
“From the standpoint of the immigrants, the streets here aren’t paved with gold, but the streets are paved – and that’s probably much better than where they came from. The Hispanics here are a permanent population. They’re buying homes and putting down roots; they’re here to stay.”
Jeff South and David Kennamer are faculty members in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.